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Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Renee Y. Hsia ’99

Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of California–San Francisco

I’ve always known I wanted to be a physician—or so I thought, when I came to Princeton. I chose the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs specifically because I thought I should make the most out of my time at a liberal arts university majoring in something other than science. It ended up being one of the best choices I ever made.

While in the Woodrow Wilson School, I remember being almost paralyzed at the breadth of interesting classes that I could take for credit toward my major as well as my certificate in East Asian studies. From seminars and classes ranging from bioethics and children, Chinese politics, population problems, literary responses to repression, social capital and civil society, all the way to Romance languages and cultures, each class showed me a different facet of society, culture, and thought that opened up my view of the world.

My junior year I decided to study in South Africa for a Woodrow Wilson School policy task force on education. That experience dramatically changed the way I saw the world. My first introduction to the country, which had just had its first democratic elections four years earlier, was from an aerial point of view of Cape Town. From my window seat on the plane, I could already see the bizarre-looking concentric circles: the outer circle, a brown-black-colored blur of crowded aluminum-roofed sheds in shantytowns (which later I found out was where the blacks lived); the middle circle, a mildly more organized smudge of homogenous-colored buildings (where the “coloreds,” which was how I was categorized, lived); and the inner circle, something that you would probably see from a bird’s-eye view of the richest part of California—big houses with their swimming pools showing up as specks of blue from above, green, open parks, where the South African white elite dwelled. The distinctions between these concentric circles were so unambiguous, it looked almost as if they were planned. Of course, later I found out, they were.

Intellectual and emotional challenges

As someone who had always wanted to be a physician, I had thought that the most meaningful interactions were on the individual level. There, I saw in very real ways that these inequalities were built on a scaffolding of injustice, and that the system sustained these disparities. These experiences challenged me not only on an intellectual level, but also at a spiritual and emotional level. In particular, they forced me to think about how I might build a coherent life integrating faith and work in a concrete way.

These experiences also challenged my ideas about becoming a physician, and I spent the summer after college in Rwanda as one of the first interns of what is now Princeton in Africa. I had, to my surprise and delight, been accepted into Harvard Medical School, but I remember writing letters back and forth to my two closest mentors at Princeton (then and still now), professors Lynn White and Stanley Katz, about the decision whether to go to medical school or pursue a career in public health. I decided with their input to go (also since I wasn’t clear what the next step was, anyway!) to medical school. 

While at medical school, I found my attention wandering a bit back to public health and public policy issues, so I took some time off to pursue my master’s degree in health policy and financing at the London School of Economics and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I came back to the United States invigorated with more passion (although not as much direction), finished medical school, and decided that I very much enjoyed the hands-on skills of being a physician. I completed my residency in emergency medicine at Stanford University and am now an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. I am a clinician-researcher: I work clinically at the San Francisco General Hospital, which is the only trauma center for the city and county of San Francisco, and therefore sees all blunt and penetrating trauma within the perimeter of the city. It is where almost all homeless patients in San Francisco receive their care, in addition to thousands of immigrants, both documented and not, where I speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish on a daily basis. It is an incredible place. I am also a researcher, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to pursue research related to access to emergency care for vulnerable populations, including the low-income, uninsured or under-insured, and minorities. Part of my work is also global, as I have practiced as an emergency physician in Haiti, Uganda, Senegal, southern Sudan, Eritrea, and China. (I have also served on a fun expedition as the ship doctor to Antarctica!) I am passionate about what I do, both in the clinical setting and in the research setting, and could not be more thankful for this combination of work.

Exposure to the world

When I received the Pyne Prize at Princeton in 1999, I stated that I never once experienced the stale placidity of the ivory tower associated with elite institutions, what Saul Bellow, a former Princeton teacher, called, “... a sanctuary ... with its own choochoo train and elms and lovely green cages.” Instead, Princeton exposed me to the world, and made the world my classroom. Through different alumni funds (e.g., the Fred Fox ’39 Fund, where I met my good friend Charlie Dennison ’39, whom I still visit), Princeton allowed me to travel to Haiti and Honduras to be exposed to conditions of poverty that I had never experienced before. Through the Woodrow Wilson School and the policy task force, Princeton took me as a student, not a tourist, to live in South Africa to learn firsthand that apartheid stole not only the political and economic rights of a people, but also their dignity. Through my senior thesis work, Princeton supported me in traveling to China so I could study the role and challenges faced by nongovernmental organizations working in the country. Through the University Orchestra, Princeton sent me to Eastern Europe to play in the concert halls of Mozart and Dvořák to share the universal language of music.

I cannot thank sufficiently the professors and members of the administration—especially several of my deans, Nathan Scovronick, Nancy Kanach, and Nancy Malkiel—who have invested in me not just on the academic level but on the personal level. The opportunities Princeton—and its people—have afforded me to understand the world we live in have shown me how richly we are blessed, why we should be profoundly thankful, and what we should do as individuals and a community to work within the realities of the structures we live in to strive for justice and mercy in this world.

Hsia-Renee